In what might be the most disheartening loss of the Jim Harbaugh era, the 49ers came completely unglued against a team that they should have beaten by 3 scores. Penalties, turnovers and generally sloppy play cost the 49ers a chance to keep pace with the Arizona Cardinals atop the NFC West...a missed chance that could haunt them later in the season.
This week, we'll dissect the loss, what the league must change moving forward, what to expect next week in Arizona and picks for week 3.
Before I get into the wherefores and why nots of what went wrong, two fundamental truths about this game should be established. First, the 49ers should have won this game handily. Second, that didn't happen because the 49ers failed to exploit their clear matchup advantages over the Bears.
The first half of the game went exactly as many expected. The Bears waffled, the 49ers dominated and this game seemed to be a blowout in the making. So where did momentum shift? I can trace it back to one play: Frank Gore's TD run nullified by a phantom holding call on Anquan Boldin. It isn't the penalty that shifted momentum...it was the net result of the points taken off the board. As is his tendency, this is the point where Kap began to press...and it resulted in a turnover in Chicago territory.
What followed was a string of stupid (and certainly some unnecessary) penalties that would permanently turn the tide of the contest. From that point on, it seemed that every big play the 49ers could manage was tainted by penalty...and the big plays they almost managed resulted in drops, turnovers and mysterious flags for naughty language.
The nuts and bolts of this team are in place...but some need to be tightened. Quickly. The offensive line is languishing, due in large part to the rust apparent in Alex Boone's game and the lack of consistency present in Jonathan Martin's. Corey Lemonier is getting the lion's share of the snaps at OLB in place of Aldon Smith...but he has largely disappeared on passing downs. The secondary is beat up...and losing Tremaine Brock for an extended period will tax younger players who have the ability to compete...but whose lack of experience will be on full display against marquee receivers. The pieces are in place...but make no mistake...they still need to come together.
Time for Change
The league has made a point of emphasizing illegal contact and hands to the face this season. For the most part, I agree that the game must evolve if it is to survive...but calling 26 penalties in a game is not helping the game evolve. Games like the home opener...especially in prime time...do far more harm than good. The result notwithstanding, there were way too many flags thrown in this one...and for the most part, they were laughable (on both sides of the ball).
Should the game be made safer for the men who play it? You bet. Should flagrant illegal contact between defensive backs and receivers be made a point of emphasis? Absolutely. That stated, the standard of what constitutes a penalty and what does not should be relatively easy to decipher...and given what we've all witnessed this so far this season that is simply not the case.
A personal foul for "inappropriate language?" Illegal contact for hand checking between receiver and defensive back? Roughing the passer for a shot between the shoulders and waist as the ball is released? Uh, no. While I will be the first to advocate fair play and player safety, this isn't CYO touch football...it's the NFL. Someone should convey that to the officials before we're forced to endure another flag-fest.
Don't look now, but the Arizona Cardinals have started out hot...and currently sit atop the NFC West at 2-0. Arizona's stingy defense is the primary reason for their early success...and it will be a real test for the 49er offense...especially if they are down their two top tight ends.
In my estimation, the 49ers success (or lack thereof) this Sunday will depend greatly on how well their patchwork offensive line holds together. Alex Boone has been less than impressive since he returned from his holdout, Jonathan Martin is...Jonathan Martin, Mike Iupati is still obviously not all the way back from last season's broken ankle, and Daniel Kilgore has been solid but unspectacular. This is a group that has yet to play to its full potential...and that's putting it kindly.
I expect the 49ers to bounce back from last week's second half meltdown...but for them to make that happen, the line needs to establish itself early against a very aggressive Arizona defensive front. If the line flags against Arizona the way they did against Chicago, the afternoon could be a very unpleasant one for Colin Kaepernick.
*Having attended every game played at Levi's stadium to date, I can state with complete confidence that the crowd sucks. Crowd awareness in the 49ers' new home is downright embarrassing. In general, fans do not know when to shut up (hint: it's when the 49ers are on offense) or when to make noise (hint: it's from when the opposing offense is in the huddle until they snap the ball). If you don't understand the game, that's perfectly okay...but don't get upset with fans who do.
*Aaron Lynch has only shown flashes...but they are worthy of note. Lynch appears to be a more natural pass rusher than Corey Lemonier (better with his hands, more explosion, better block shedding ability) and he's shown that he can hold his own on Special Teams (see last Sunday's blocked punt). It is only a matter of time before he begins taking snaps away from Lemonier.
* Derek Carrier had a couple of very nice grabs in relief of Vernon Davis last week. The fact that he is a natural WR that bulked up to play TE at the NFL level was on full display...in a good way. While I don't expect him to become a mainstay in the offense, his speed creates some very interesting matchup issues that Greg Roman might seek to exploit this week.
Week 3 Picks
Tampa Bay At Atlanta (-6.5)
Atlanta is not as good as pundits (and their early successes) are making them out to be. But on their worst day, they aren't as bad as Tampa Bay. The Falcons will win this game by at least a touchdown. ATLANTA
San Diego At Buffalo (-2.5)
San Diego is a better team than Buffalo. And Phillip Rivers looks like he just took a "5 years ago" pill. Conventional wisdom says never pick a road underdog unless you think they can win. I think the road 'dog will run away with this one. SAN DIEGO
Dallas (-1) At St. Louis
Dallas is bad. Bad enough that I think they'll fail to win on the road against a less talented (but better coached) team. ST LOUIS
Washington At Philadelphia (-6.5)
Darren Sproles appears to have discovered the fountain of youth in Chip Kelly's Chuck n' Duck offense. And I think he'll end up being a difference maker against a banged up division rival missing two of its most dynamic players. PHILADELPHIA
Houston (-2.5) At NY Giants
I checked my magic 8 ball for this one. It's answer? The Giants suck harder than a Dyson. HOUSTON
Minnesota At New Orleans (-10.5)
Minnesota was already just a so-so team. Without All Day running the ball they are worse than so-so. A lot worse. But not 10.5 points worse than a Saints team that has demonstrated that is cannot close out a game. MINNESOTA
Tennessee At Cincinnati (-7)
Jake Locker. Delanie Walker. Are they the new dynamic duo of the AFC? No. No they're not. CINCINNATI
Baltimore (-1.5) At Cleveland
Cleveland could f*ck up a wet dream. BALTIMORE
Green Bay At Detroit (-2)
Can Green Bay manage to put together a winning season? Not with that defense. The Lions are gonna make it rain this weekend. DETROIT
Indianapolis (-7) At Jacksonville
Jacksonville is almost as bad as the Raiders. Almost. INDIANAPOLIS
Oakland At New England (-14.5)
I'd love to tell you that the Raiders are going to get it together and actually play competitive football. I just can't do it with a straight face. NEW ENGLAND
Denver At Seattle (-5)
Anybody remember what happened the last time these teams bumped heads? SEATTLE
Kansas City At Miami (-4)
The Kansas City defense is backsliding so badly that it looks like they're moon-walking through games. MIAMI
Pittsburgh At Carolina (-3.5)
Try as I might, I simply cannot see the Steelers doing anything against the Panthers' defense, Greg Hardy or no. CAROLINA
Chicago At NY Jets (-3)
Chicago is not as good as their win last week...but they're better than the Jets, even on the road. CHICAGO
San Francisco (-3) At Arizona
On paper, the 49ers are a better team than the Cardinals. But this game will not be played on paper. I believe that this game will be won in the trenches. The 49ers have the talent to control the line of scrimmage, even against a defense as stout as the Cardinals' (even though that talent has yet to play up to its potential this season). This game will be a tight one...but at the end of the day the more talented team will pull away. This one will come down the a 4th quarter TD. SAN FRANCISCO